A Woman of Letters

A portrait of Carolee Schneemann, in her own words.

Carolee Schneemann with the composer James Tenney in 1956.


A thick book of exuberant and extensive correspondence is a wonderful rarity in this era of tweets, emoticons, and Facebook updates. Carolee Schneemann may be the last practitioner of the lost art of snail mail letter-writing. Kristine Stiles notes that this book contains only a third of Schneemann’s correspondence, which is housed in the Getty Research Institute, and doesn’t include anything from her diaries. But, by tracing her life and art for the years between 1956 and 1999, as she interacted with friends and colleagues, this selection provides an engaging historical document of a major segment of the American avant-garde in the last half of the 20th century.

The publication also turns out to be an act of extraordinary generosity from this exploratory feminist performance artist, most famous for her 1964 Meat Joy (“a flesh celebration”) and Interior Scroll, her naked unraveling of a paper document from her vagina during a performance in East Hampton in 1975—perhaps the defining rebellious salvo of early feminist art.

At a time in the art world when being beautiful was almost considered a defect, Schneemann flaunted her beauty the way Hannah Wilke and Colette would soon do. However, her intellect afforded her entry to the avant-garde “tribes” of painters, poets, composers, dancers, filmmakers, Fluxus artists, and performance artists who were changing the rules and nudging art toward its present condition. She corresponded with Joseph Cornell (who once “enclosed two shadows” with a note), filmmakers Stan Brakhage and Jonas Mekas, Julian Beck of the Living Theater, artists Dick Higgins and Allan Kaprow, dancer-choreographers Yvonne Rainer and Lucinda Childs, cellist Charlotte Moorman, feminist author Kate Millett, critic and playwright Daryl Chin, and also Jean-Jacques Lebel and Hannah Arendt.

The letters are about friendship and time and the joys and miseries of life—illegal abortions, failed love affairs, money troubles, the Cuban Revolution, four-cent stamps, her beloved cat Kitch, her garden. She mentions in passing her horror of teeth, notes that Susan Sontag wanted to go see the Ramones, speaks about a studio visit from art historian Leo Steinberg in which he eventually “flew off like the white rabbit adjusting his gloves.” She talks at length about her own performances and those of others, gripes about artistic slights, and discusses her feelings extensively. Throughout her correspondence, Schneemann has the remarkable quality of being both unfailingly giving and fiercely honest.

The art historian Sir Lawrence Gowing, in a letter to Schneemann in 1985, compared her to the Duchess of Alba, suggested a collaboration, and asked her if she could draw. After receiving her fervid and lovingly indignant answer, he wrote: “Your crowded letter is one of the most generous, forthcoming things I ever remember. The letter works on so many levels at once, it is lucid and emotional, both at the same time.”

Kim Levin is an independent art critic and curator.

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